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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Half Naked Truth (1932)

Over eighty years old and fresh as a daisy! This film which has been on my list 'forever' was not a YouTube discovery, although they have a clip of one of its scenes ballyhooed as the 'greatest musical number ever'. Rather the movie received its first television showing according to my records in the early morning hours courtesy of BBC2, who seem to have unearthed some RKO pre-code rarities as I exalted a few weeks ago. I just hope there are more to come.

This film is a 1930's product with a vengeance, not just because of its risqué moments (more of that later), but because its director and male and female leads all did their best work in that decade. The director, Gregory La Cava, came into his own during these years and went on to helm "My Man Godfrey" (1936) and "Stage Door" (1937), both Oscar-nominated. However a fondness for the bottle and some notorious drinking companions resulted in a series of so-called 'recurrent illnesses' and he only made three films after 1940. Lupe Velez the petite and fiery Mexican actress is now best remembered for her series of Mexican Spitfire comedies. She was married to the screen's best Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, but was a suicide by age 36 after her marriage ended and her popularity waned. Lee Tracy, unlike the other two, went on working for many years and he even received a best-supporting actor nom as the President in 1964's "The Best Man". His early career success never recovered after he was fired by MGM over a drunken incident in Mexico during the filming of "Viva Villa". He was the epitome of the fast-talking, wise-cracking hero so prevalent in the early 30s -- he even spoke more rapidly than Cagney. However, his shtick definitely feels a little dated now, and even then audiences began looking for rather more sophistication and charm in their favourite stars.

Tracy's character is purportedly based on stories, both true and apocryphal, about the master publicist Harry Reichenbach, who always found a gimmick for promoting his latest attraction.
Here his current love interest is cooch-dancer Velez, billed in their two-bit carny as La Belle Sultana. Business is bad so he spreads a rumour that at the end of tonight's performance she will reveal who, among the local  hayseeds, was responsible for impregnating her mother some years ago. A dozen guilty secrets are reflected on their erstwhile respectable faces, and Tracy's sidekick Eugene Pallette playing supposed strongman Achilles goes through the crowd collecting hush money. However like Jeanne Eagels, Velez has her heart set on appearing on the New York stage, and off the three of them go to the Big Apple. Tracy promotes Velez as a genuine princess, Princess Exotica, and cons his way into a free stay at a swanky hotel. Cue here for Franklin Pangborn to do one of his wonderfully swarmy hotel clerks turns. He tells the thronging reporters that a artsy Ziegfield-type showman (beautifully played by Frank Morgan) will be featuring her in his next big show and he hires a rather seedy lion and 30 pounds of fresh meat to be delivered for her 'pet' to their hotel suite to ensure more publicity. Incidentally he explains away Pallette's role in their entourage as the former eunuch of the harem from which the Princess has escaped. The word is never used but furtive glances at Pallette's nether regions make this clear.

Morgan tries to frame a tasteful number for the exotic 'princess' but the audience is bored until she sheds several layers of clothing and reverts to her standard bump and grind routine to the strains of her favourite song "Hi, Mr. Carpenter". Just imagine a set of lyrics full of innuendos reminiscent of the cliched porn film theme of a visiting plumber inspecting the lady of the house's pipes and you'll get the picture. Velez is eventually dropped by the amorous but married Morgan after some hilarious blackmail attempts by Tracy, involving pictures of the impresario feeding her an olive mouth-to-mouth. By now, however, Tracy has found his next would-be sensation, chambermaid Shirley Chambers (possibly the original 'dumb' blonde); he claims to have discovered her amongst a cult of nudists living in Central Park, led once again by good old Achilles with a paunch and a fake beard.

The film is a scant 74 minutes, but that's 74 minutes of brilliant performances, fast-paced and bright repartee, and loads of good, not so clean, fun.  Very highly recommended.

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